I was rushing back to the home of my couchsurfing host in Cevizlibağ, where he was preparing dinner for the two of us. It was 8 in the evening – the peak hour of pleasure – when Istanbullus would be out celebrating the end of the day with their friends and family over dinner, coffee, or a game of backgammon. In any case, my tram – the T1 line connecting the glitzy district of Beyoğlu with the working class suburbs around Zeytinburnu – was always packed with passengers. Finding a seat is as rare as finding sahlep (a restorative hot winter drink) that’s been made with real wild orchid roots, rather than the pedestrian version crudely thickened with cornstarch.
Rare, but not impossible. Stepping into the tram, I caught sight of an empty seat and having meandered the streets of Istanbul the whole day, I quickly dropped my bum to proclaim that This Seat Is Mine! As the tram advanced across stations – Sirkeci, Gülhane, Sultanahmet, Çemberlitaş – more people got in and I started feeling a pang of guilt seeing the other passengers squashed up and barely able to stand. I took a newspaper, Radikal, left by someone and pretended to read it so that the standing passengers wouldn’t harbour resentment against this comfortably seated foreigner.
I soon got tired of reading things I don’t understand; I looked around me and noticed a pretty Turkish girl standing about 1 or 2 metres away, in a red top and a yellow jacket. At the next stop, Beyazıt, an old woman, small and hunched and fragile, got on the tram and I quickly offered my seat. The girl seemed to smile, I’m not sure if giving up seats was a rare gesture in Istanbul, but I always appreciate a beautiful smile especially when in foreign lands. I stole quick glances at her and maybe it’s just me but she seemed to be always looking in my direction too.
A passenger got up from the seat next to where she was standing, and an elderly man gestured for her to take it. She refused, telling him to take it instead, addressing him as ‘Baba’ – father, though also used in Turkey for senior citizens as a sign of respect. I thought to myself what a nice person she is, and I may have inadvertently smiled.
Haseki. Fındıkzade. Çapa-Şehremini. We were approaching my stop. My host would’ve finished cooking by now and is waiting for me. Yet I wished the journey would stretch for longer. At Topkapı, the second last stop, the old woman whom I gave my seat to earlier got off. The girl turned to me and asked in Turkish if I wanted the seat (I think that’s what she said). I replied back in English “It’s OK, I’m getting off at the next stop”. She sat down. I wasn’t even sure if she understood me. The automated voice inside the tram announced: Cevizlibağ.
I alighted. The tram whizzed past. How long would I remember her face?
I’m sitting at my desk recounting this story to you because I’m taking a break. I’ve just finished going through Chapter 12: Fruits and Vegetables of my Beginners’ Turkish lessons on a free website. The next time I visit Istanbul, I will speak Turkish.